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The state of courtesy

There was a time when vassals were flogged for paying insufficient obeisance to their lords and masters; until relatively recently in Western countries, a lapse in manners could provoke a fatal duel. But while it is true that real or perceived rudeness today can still result in a bloody nose or worse, we have reached the point where most of us are courteous primarily because we want to be. If there is an ulterior motive behind common courtesy, it is that making other people feel good makes us feel good too.

Yet unconsciously we are supporting the very structure of society every time we wish someone a good day, ask how they are, or say please and thank you. For the agreeable modus vivendim on which civilized social relations rest cannot be enforced by written law.

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There is a difference, however, between politeness and courtesy. Diplomats, lawyers and legislators must be polite as a matter of form. They do not necessarily have to be courteous, because by definition, courtesy is acting with kindness and civility in address and manner. Politeness may be civil enough, but when it turns cool, it is anything but kind.

"Politeness is fictitious benevolence," wrote Dr. Samuel Johnson. Courtesy, on the other hand, has benevolence built in. One cannot be genuinely courteous without having a genuine regard for the feelings and general welfare of one's fellows. Politeness is a quality of the head, courtesy of the heart.

Similarly, manners are nothing more than modes of behavior which may have little or nothing to do with kindness or civility.

The more "refined" manners became, it seems, the more they drifted away from the spirit of courtesy. It is clearly neither kind nor civil to make someone feel bad for not knowing what you know, be it etiquette or anything else. True courtesy is universal. As George Bernard Shaw said through Professor Higgins in Pygmalion,m "The great thing, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any particular set of manners, but of having the same manners for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in heaven, where there are no thrid-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another."

In a democratic egalitarian society, dignity attaches itself not so much to social status as to conduct. Given the basic knowledge of manners taught in most homes and schools, a person may become as much of a gentleman or lady as he or she chooses to be. It is simple in theory but difficult in practice, because being a real gentleman or lady means running a continuous check on one's words and actions to ensure that they do not needlessly offend or disconcert anyone.

With all the forces now working against it, is courtesy dying? It might look so to those who deplore the evident decline in the old social graces, but it is salutary to speculate that the first such sentiments were probably expressed in inarticulate grunts around a fire in a cave. As social conditions change, so do manners.

Try not to be unpleasant, try not to annoy your neighbor. This makes a good start towards genuine courtesy, no matter what the present outward forms of politeness may be. If you add that you should try to act with solicitude for the feelings and well-being of others, then you will know how to be courteous. But to do so takes self-control, self-effacement and self-denial, virtues that seem to be out of style these days.

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But are they really? Despite the highly conspicuous minority who abuse the new freedom to make nuisances of themselves, contemporary Western society shows more concern about pe ople than any society before it.

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